How to take racism out of biology


Race has long been used to explain the relationship between our ancestry and our genes, but a new paper argues it is time to find a better way. Amy Middleton reports.


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A powerful paper published this month in the journal Science condemns the use of race as a classification in the genetics, health and medicine, and encourages the use of terms such as “population” and “ancestry” to describe a group of genetically similar humans.

The paper suggests that racial stereotyping in science is no more “scientific” than making assumptions about people based on their race in everyday life.

Stereotyping is neither practical or logical – and nor is it relevant or necessary enough to justify the harm that comes from furthering race-based stigma and prejudice, the paper argues.

“We believe the use of biological concepts of race in human genetic research – so disputed and so mired in confusion – is problematic at best and harmful at worst,” the paper states.

In terms of genetics, the researchers suggest that the concept of race is not the same as ancestry. Questions of ancestry contribute to a deeper genetic understanding of an individual, the authors argue, while race probably does not.

“Racial assumptions are not the biological guideposts some believe them to be, as commonly defined racial groups are genetically heterogeneous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries,” the researchers say.

The examples given include the common misdiagnosis of haemoglobinopathies (genetic disorders of the blood) because of the identification of sickle-cell as a “Black” disease. Cystic fibrosis, on the other hand, is a disease presumed as typically “White”, and consequently remains under-diagnosed in African populations.

So, what’s in a word? Will using “ancestry” in place of “race” make a difference?

The authors believe so.

“Language matters, and the scientific language of race has a considerable influence on how the public (which includes scientists) understands human diversity,” they write.

They also call upon The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to administer a board to recommend ways to move past race as a classification in biology and wider science.

“Phasing out racial terminology in biological sciences would send an important message to scientists and the public alike,” the paper says.

“Historical racial categories that are treated as natural and infused with notions of superiority and inferiority have no place in biology.”

The paper, Taking race out of human genetics: Engaging a century-long debate about the role of race in science, was written by Michael Yudell of Drexel University, Dorothy Roberts and Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvannia and Rob DeSalle of the American Museum of Natural History.

  1. http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sci/emb_scipak/pdf/yudell-02-05-16.pdf
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